Sacred giant

2nd February 2001 at 00:00
In the hustle and bustle of north London, there rises a Hindu templeof such breathtaking beauty it has joinedthe 'Reader's Digest'list of wonders ofthe 20th century. Nicki Household marvels at the Mandir.

The Shree Swaminarayan Mandir in Neasden, north-west London, was the first traditional Hindu temple to be built in the western hemisphere.

The magnificent domed and pinnacled building's inauguration in 1995 was the realisation of a dream. Thirteen years earlier, Pramukh Swami Maharaj, itinerant leader of the one million strong Swaminarayan branch of the Hindu faith, had expressed the wish to built a traditional stone mandir in London.

It took nearly 10 years to acquire a big enough site and the necessary planning permission. Constructed by 1,000 volunteers within three years, the temple received the Royal Fine Art Commission's Most Enterprising Building Award for 1996 and is included in the Reader's Digest's 70 wonders of the 20th century.

A 15-minute video tells the remarkable story of how it was built. Once the project was approved, 2,000 tons of Carrara marble from Italy and 2,828 tons of limestone from Bulgaria were shipped to India, where 1,500 sculptors chipped away at them for two years, creating sacred images. In 1993, the 26,300 carved pieces were shipped back to England. Volunteers assembled them, like a giant jigsaw.

Adjoining the temple is an impressive cultural complex, entered via a vast high foyer, supported by 50 intricately carved teak pillars. The scale and craftsmanship of both buildings are breathtaking. Besides its great foyer, the 250-foot long Haveli, or cultural centre, includes a prayer hall 22,000 feet square, plus a sports hall, library, marriage hall, kitchens and offices.

The temple itself contains no steel or iron in its structure and is designed to last 1,000 years. It already seems centuries older than the rest of Neasden.

Shoes are not worn in the temple or cultural centre, so visitors remove their footwear and place it in numbered cubbyholes in the shoe room. Bags are also surrendered. This is done to leave the material world behind and respect the atmosphere of peace and spirituality.

Between five and eight schools visit the temple eery weekday morning - up to 450 children a day. But each school has its own time slot and the system seems to work. Each visit begins with a presentation in the prayer hall, explaining the basic beliefs of Hinduism, followed by a tour of an evocative and well-presented Understanding Hinduism exhibition in a series of chambers on the ground floor of the temple.

Exhibits include storyboards, and illustrations of the most important Hindu heroes. There are imaginative displays explaining the origins of Hinduism, its history and philosophy. Children can then watch a video about the construction of the temple before attending a 10-minute Aarti, or service, in the shrine room.

Here, the singing, chanting and clapping is led by a monk who sounds a gong and waves a lamp in front of the divine images. This short act of worship is the only time when young visitors have to be silent. Although the marble shrine room is the holiest place in the temple, when no service is taking place children are encouraged to sit on the floor and draw the gods or carvings. These idols, or murtis, are not worshipped as gods, but as images in which God is present.

The Swaminarayans also worship images of Lord Swaminarayan, the 18th-century founder of their branch of the faith, and his spiritual successors. When the various images were installed in the temple, a special service was held to sanctify them and every day they are offered five Aartis (wavings of lamps before the images) and offerings of fresh food, clothes and ornaments.

"The children have been totally gobsmacked by the beauty of the building," says Marie Kirker, teacher of a Year 4 class from Oliver Goldsmith's school in Kingsbury. "They were so impressed that they actually observed the silence rules. We've been studying Hinduism as an RE topic. Coming here has brought the whole thing alive for them."

Shree Swaminarayan Mandir 105-119 Brentfield Road, Neasden, London NW10 8JP. Tel: 020 8965 2651. Group booking officer: Mr Kirit Patel. Visits to the Mandir and Haveli are free, but there is a charge of pound;1.50 per child for the video and exhibition. A teacher's handbook is available at pound;6 (including postage and packing) or pound;4.99 from the temple.

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